After some bad experiences in a master's program, I decided to become a PhD student in the same program. My plan was to finish a paper and leave as soon as possible, meanwhile earning the recommendations that my bad early experiences prevented. That's basically been the situation for a couple years now - longer than I ever expected. At this point, I'm finally finish my projects and I've presented at a couple conferences. I genuinely like the professor I'm working with now. However, I never intended to specialize in this research area; the idea of doing my PhD in this area is very disappointing to me. And (selfishly?), I very much want to move to a new institution.

At this point, I'm not sure what to do. My ideal situation would be to finish my current projects and move to a new institution to work in a field I was more excited about. However, I'm afraid that if I reveal my desires the professor I'm working with will try to sabotage me. I'm also concerned that leaving now will look strange on a graduate application: why admit a quitter? I'm also starting to feel a little old to be starting a new program.

I'd really like to just be done with all this, but the question I keep asking myself is, "Why get a PhD in something you're not interested in?" Maybe, though, there are good reasons.

I'd appreciate any advice you may have.

  • 1
    Why the votes to close?
    – JeffE
    Mar 26, 2012 at 0:12
  • 1
    @JeffE - I suspect because the question rambles somewhat. I agree, though, an interesting and relevant question.
    – eykanal
    Mar 26, 2012 at 2:13

5 Answers 5


From what I could glean from this story, one thing is clear: you are confusing yourself a lot and your thinking is quite muddled possibly because of a few adverse experiences. Think on these lines:

  • What is the 'new' area to which you want to move to? Do you really love the challenges it poses?
    1. If yes, find some nice professors to work with, mail them asking about positions. Forget about your age, the number of years it will take and a host of other details: if you are passionate, the passion will carry you through the doctorate.
    2. If no, ask yourself if you are passionate about the one you are working on. From what you have written you do not seem to be so. Even your publications seem to carry this 'ulterior' motive of getting a better grad school. If you do not love your PhD, then you should seriously consider moving to the industry.
  • You have publications under your name, so it is unlikely that a professor can "sabotage" your application and more unlikely that he will. Get over the bad experiences with your first professors soon! Don't call yourself a "quitter", instead admit you have been working on a few research problems but do not want to work on them for a doctorate.

That might depend on the field, but you don't have to love your topic to get your PhD. You are not defined by your PhD topic, and it is usually possible to change topic later in your career. For instance, the topic of my first postdoc was quite different to the topic of my PhD.

So, of course, it's better to do a PhD on a topic you love with an advisor you love, in a university you love, but it's not always possible, and since you already have some papers in your current topic (which somehow says that you have at least some interest in it), and you appreciate your current advisor, then you can consider doing your PhD on this topic, and once you got it, then you can move on. You can also try to establish collaborations during your PhD with professors working on the topic you love, for instance by attending summer/winter schools on this topic.

Getting a PhD is not like taking an oath to work on the same topic for the rest of your life, it's simply getting a degree stating that you're able to do research. That being said, if you are accepted to a program that is exactly what you love, then there shouldn't be any harm in going for it, but it might not be worth to jeopardize your current situation.

EDIT: To illustrate that a postdoc can be indeed on a different topic than the PhD, I can for instance refer to aeismail's answer: https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/844/102

  • sorry, the link leads to page not found (Page Not Found This question was removed from Academia Stack Exchange for reasons of moderation.)
    – laika
    Feb 14, 2014 at 11:49

To answer your direct question, I can only think of two reasons:

  1. You began your research thinking you'd be interested in a particular topic, but as the research progressed and you became more familiar with the field your interest waned.
  2. You have an end goal which requires familiarity with a particular area, and there are a number of ways you can approach that goal. You pursue a PhD in a field where you think it would be easiest to become familiar with that goal, despite the fact that you're less interested in the PhD than the ultimate goal.

The first reason, from my educated guess, is very common. The second probably much less so. Do note, though, that as Charles said, your degree is often very portable; someone with a math degree can likely successfully apply for positions in other related fields (engineering, statistics).


No, it won't prevent you from continuing elsewhere but from personal experience it would be easier to move laterally perhaps in your own university. However there are some questions that you must ask yourself:

  1. How far into your PhD program are you?
  2. What about the current topic don't you like and is there anything you can do to develop an interest in this? Very often, the more time you spend with a topic, a better sense of the same you have which can help in looking at it from a better perspective.
  3. Is it your subject area that is bothering you or do you really want to move to an other university?

Moving schools has it's downsides:

  1. Course requirements would need a reboot for you.
  2. You may have to take your qualifiers again.
  3. Building new relationships and networking will be a challenge (not impossible, just challenging)

Did you talk to your current adviser about your quandary?


Nothing is preventing you from trying PhD in another laboratory at least one or two times. It is appropriate, in some cases may be recommended and is usually accepted as a normal case.

Maybe if it is an adjacent laboratory next door, a potential new supervisor may not want to conflict with your former supervisor, but this seldom expands outside one institution, and even there largely depends on personalities involved.

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